A Report in May

Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara

One morning several weeks ago, as I walked through the front gate at school, I noticed one of my students, Albert, loitering by some parked scooters about ten feet to my right. His class was starting in ten minutes. I was on my way to retrieve a whiteboard marker before going to it. I knew, however, the instant that I saw him, that he would not be there, and passed wordlessly by.

Of the three boys in that class whose attendance on any given day is a toss-up, Albert is the most boisterous, liable to crow the first words in English that come to mind, whether relevant to the situation or not. Yanus has only ever said to me, "I lapar" ("I hungry") and, on one occasion, something about "banyak cewek" ("many girls") which I did not understand fully but which seemed lewd. And Godris, I have never heard say anything. On the days that he comes to class, he sits in the back of the room with a quizzical smirk on his face, as if after five months he still hasn't decided what to make of this bule trying to teach him English. Or he just falls asleep.

Another day, not long after the morning I saw Albert by the front gate, I lost my patience with the class, cut the lesson short, and asked each student to write down on a slip of paper what he or she really wanted from me and from their English class. Godris wrote that I should be more "tegang" ("strict") and further explained that if I was too easygoing in the classroom, then the students would be too. At the time, I didn't know what "tegang" meant, so I pulled him aside after class and asked him. But before Godris could answer, we were interrupted by Ibu Fauziah, my counterpart, who smacked him shockingly hard across the backside with a ruler and sidled out of the classroom, muttering something that would translate roughly to: "Strict my ass..."

I never got an answer from Godris and later looked up "tegang" on my own. Both my surprise and my relief upon learning its meaning were immense. I should have been able to figure it out simply based on context, but hadn't the presence of mind to do so. I'd been so sure—so dreadfully afraid—the moment I read "Mr. Riley harus jadi..." ("Mr. Riley should be..."), that he was about to tell me to be more relaxed.

Describing his daily routine when in the thick of writing a novel, Haruki Murakami said that "the repetition itself becomes the important thing; it's a form of mesmerism" and that this mesmerism allows him to "reach a deeper state of mind." He also noted that "to hold to such a repetition for so long—six months to a year—requires a good amount of mental and physical strength." Murakami's repetitive, mesmerizing routine evidently consisted of getting up at 4am every morning, writing for five to six hours, running 10 kilometers or swimming 1500 meters (or both) in the afternoon, unwinding with some reading and music in the evening, and dropping off to sleep by 9pm.

I have been thinking a lot about Murakami's routine and how elegantly simple it is. About how it seems so tailor-made for doing just one particular thing—writing a novel (at no extra cost to his health and sanity)—and absolutely nothing else. In an age of ever-increasing distraction and anxiety, this kind of focus holds an irresistible appeal.

I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to be able to commit to a routine like that. Strength, for sure, just like Murakami said. But that can't be it. Strong enough or not, he had to have decided at some earlier point that writing a novel (and staying healthy and sane along the way) was in fact the only thing that he wanted or needed to do (Was there a difference?) for at least six months to a year. And I have been thinking a lot about what it takes to make a decision like that—a decision as single-minded and seemingly oblivious to the simple realities of earning a living, being a social creature, and navigating the unpredictables of daily existence, as that.

I have been thinking about these things partly because, at times, my task here in the Peace Corps feels similarly single-minded and oblivious to reality. I am ignoring Murakami's acclaim and a whole host of other resources and conditions that have probably conspired to make his routine much more reasonable than it sounds out of context. That said, there is still one key difference between Murakami's literary task and my pedagogical one that remains constant, no matter the circumstances: Murakami can cut himself off from others and work alone if he wishes, while my job as an English teacher and teacher trainer is collaborative by definition. This difference explains why I cannot singlehandedly defy reality and accomplish my task through sheer willpower—it is not only my decision to make. I am not the only party facing a ludicrously unrealistic national curriculum, a pervasive culture of hierarchy and shame, widespread apathy and bureaucratic graft, and a dire lack of opportunities to use English outside of rarefied or strictly academic settings. My teaching, and my counterparts' and students' learning English, depend on our joint readiness to surmount these realities. More than that, they depend on our having comparable interpretations of these realities and of what ostensibly common goal lies beyond them.

What does it take to stick to a strenuous routine? It takes mental and emotional readiness and a sense of purpose and trajectory—in a word, motivation. And motivation, in turn, requires no trivial amount of thought and effort and experience to muster up in the first place. Strength, along with the curious and intoxicating mesmerism of repetition it enables, come later.

There are two pieces of paper taped to the wall above my desk. One of them reads:


  • Get into graduate school.
  • Intern in a newsroom.
  • Get published.
  • Win an amateur boxing match.
  • Leave something tangible and useful behind in Kupang.

The other:


  • Work/At School: 30 hrs/week (per Peace Corps policy; negotiable)
  • Writing: 14 hrs/week
  • Reading: 10 hrs/week
  • Photography: 14 hrs/week
  • Research & Study: 12 hrs/week (negotiable)
  • Training: 12 hrs/week
  • Socializing: 8hrs/week
  • Chores, travel, etc: 12 hrs/week
  • Sleep: 56 hrs/week

Contrary to what he said in March, Pak Hermensen, the boxing coach and former Olympian, has nobody for me to spar. But as of two weeks ago, he has given me permission to attend practices with his Team Indonesia squad at their training facility in Kupang.

The space is airy and cavernous like a hotel banquet hall. Red and white banners have been stretched across the ceiling lengthwise and metal posts line the walls, spaced apart at intervals of about twenty feet, a heavy bag dangling from each one. The floor is made of white tiles, which become dangerously slick after a few minutes of shadowboxing and sweating. To help with this, hard, foam mats have been laid underneath all of the heavy bags and over half of the floorspace (the other half remains bare). In the middle of it all is a regulation-size boxing ring raised three feet off the ground, complete with a stretched canvas surface, ropes, and red and blue corners.

The athletes—eight men and three women—are being put up in a hotel down the street from the facility, right next to an open-air produce market. They will stay there until December—even the ones who are local. This much is proof of just how official the whole outfit is and of how much money and sway Pak Hermensen and the other powers that be have at their disposal. Nevertheless, like many other "official" institutions and proceedings I have observed in Indonesia, this one displays a curious commingling of refinement and roughness, high-minded seriousness and casual nonchalance. There is the tile floor, for one thing—an obvious sign that the space was not originally meant to be a training facility and was simply converted into one due to its size and proximity to the athletes' living quarters. Behind the heavy bags (brand new) hanging from their posts (sturdy and installed especially for the purpose), long lines of ants march across pale yellow walls and smoke from trash fires drifts through glass window slats (some cracked). On sparring days, the referees, who I assume must be licensed, arrive and referee the matches dressed in graphic tees, jeans, and leather slippers while throngs of local children crowd in to watch or attack the heavy bags. The athletes themselves certainly look the part, bedecked in official Team Indonesia gear and working up a sweat beneath polyester track suits. Today, though, after practice, Libertus, a soft-spoken light welterweight, took his trainers off and walked back to the hotel barefoot, his shapely, rock-like calves glistening as he tip-toed nimbly around broken glass and litter and the market's fly-bitten refuse.

There is no better demonstration of the juxtaposition of formality and informality, however, than my very presence at practice—than the fact that they have allowed a foreigner and complete novice to flounder alongside them while they try to give Indonesian amateur boxing a name.

Earlier this month, I accompanied a colleague from school and two of our students on a trip to the remote district of Amfoang Utara (North Amfoang), right on the border with the East Timorese enclave of Oecusse. One of the students is originally from that district. Her parents still live there in a little, beachside village that she last saw three years ago when she moved away to attend high school in Kupang. It is no more than 60 miles away from the city, as the crow flies. But the circuitous, inland route, which, for much of the journey, constitutes nothing more than an unpaved donkey path over mountains and involves multiple river fordings, takes 14 hours to traverse. At times, the bus must groan along while tilted 10 or 20 degrees to one side or the other, forcing the flip-flop-clad, betel nut-chewing baggage attendants to climb up onto the roof and sit on the opposite side to provide counterweight—so rocky and uneven is the ground underneath. Even when the bus is upright, the way is so bumpy that you are constantly banging your head against the window or against the head of your fellow passenger and being jolted out of your seat and your sleep. During the rainy season, the rivers flood and the road becomes impassable, leaving the coastal villages almost completely isolated.

We stayed with my student's family for three nights. On one of them, I snuck away from the house with a flashlight and my camera and jogged 400 meters down the path to the ocean. I was in search of a man whom I had seen passing in front of our gate at dusk with a bucket, headlamp, and spear, and had assumed was going night-fishing.

The moon was bright and the tide low, revealing a wide swathe of craggy boulders and mostly-dead coral, stretching at least 100 meters out from the edge of the beach and into the shallows. There, I found him with his spear raised overhead, approached tentatively, and asked the obvious: "Bapak memancing ikan?" ("Mister is fishing?") He replied in the affirmative and gave something in the water a couple of quick pokes before moving onto the next big rock. I removed my camera's lens cap and metered for exposure by shining my flashlight at some exposed coral and focusing on it. In my viewfinder, everything surrounding that one, glistening spot of squishy, green-gray sponginess (it looked like a brain) was pitch black. My own eyes fared little better.

I kept up with him for what felt like hours—him, wading steadily and methodically along, poking and probing with his spear, illuminating patches of sandy seabed and nooks and crannies in the coral with his headlamp, and I, twenty feet further ashore, snapping a couple of pictures, splashing awkwardly after him, taking a couple more shadowy, underexposed photographs (except for a lamplit foot here, a ghostly hand there), trying to stay abreast. Shallow as it was, the water was not calm. It was lapping restlessly against the boulders and was murky with sand and silt. I glimpsed a couple of crabs slinking out of the beam of my flashlight and a few minnow-sized fish darting into dark corners. But besides these, there was no trace of anything big enough to spear and eat, which I assumed, given the time of day and effort already expended, was the man's purpose. At some point, I stopped deliberately trying to anticipate his next move and angle myself into position for a decent composition. Instead, I let my instincts take over and my mind wander. I would hop precariously from one slippery ledge to the next, looking only at where my feet were going and listening only to the whoosh of the waves. When there was a pause in the sound of his sloshing, I would pause along with it, raise my camera to eye-level, and press the shutter almost immediately after finding focus, content to let luck, the camera, and whatever, hypnotic sense of synchronization I had achieved with the man and with the night itself capture whatever it is that they wished to capture. In the meantime, I wondered. What on earth was there to catch among these boulders? Was this a good night or a bad night? Was he feeling patient and clear-headed or as fuzzy and benumbed as I was? How late would he stay out? How often did this man go fishing? And for how many years had this been his nightly or weekly (Could it be less frequent?) routine? Was he, by local standards, skillful at what he was doing? And if so, how long had it taken him to achieve this level of skill? Who, if anybody, had taught him? How many times, along the way, had he returned home with an empty bucket? And what then? Would he or his family go without a meal? Did he have a family? Were they waiting for him right now? With an open flame and empty stomachs?

I was startled out of my reverie by a sudden, violent movement out of the corner of my eye and a hollow thunk. The man was now crouching waist-deep in the water and had plunged one arm beneath the surface, reaching for something. With the other, he gripped the shaft of the spear tightly and drove it downwards. Then, having gotten a firm hold with the reaching hand, he relaxed the other and stood up. At the end of the spear, pierced straight through its fleshy mantle, was an octopus—pink, wriggling, and as big as a soccer ball.

As he proceeded to remove it from his spear tip, I clambered forward for a better look. He was trying to pry the octopus's tentacles off of his forearms. Once he had gotten them all off, he gathered the tentacles in a bunch, swung the octopus around like a sling, and bashed it several times against the rock he was standing on. It was still writhing. He proceeded to pin it down and strike it between the eyes with a sharp piece of coral, before finally dumping it into his bucket. This last step he performed by the light of my flashlight, for his own lamp had slipped off his head and gone out while swinging the octopus. I was sure that it had gone out for good and was prepared to light the man's way home. But he simply plucked the lamp out of the water, gave it a couple of whacks until it flickered on again, and waded back out into the waves.

Presently, I noticed three more lights approaching us from the opposite direction. Their up-and-down, bobbing motion indicated that they too were worn on the heads of fishermen. Feeling spent, I watched, but did not follow, as the one light and the three lights crept closer towards each other, met haltingly, swiveled this way and that, and then, all together, continued bobbing and pausing, bobbing and pausing their way down the beach.

I stood still in the enveloping darkness, feeling the waves licking at my ankles. A light breeze was blowing and I shivered a little. I watched them for a long time before turning back towards the village—watched them recede into the distance, twinkling and fading like stars.

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